Johanna writes: "I was recently surprised to hear a nutritionist encourage people to use butter, calling it a healthy fat. I've always avoided butter because of the saturated fat. Yet, a quick online search shows multiple articles saying butter is making a comeback as a healthy fat. Can this be true?"
It’s true that butter contains saturated fat. It’s also true that saturated fat’s reputation as an artery clogger has been undergoing some rehabilitation in recent years. Diets that are high in saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels. But as I’ve explored in several previous podcasts, the links between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease are a lot more complex than we once thought. In fact, having some saturated fat in your diet may actually be good for your heart and other organs.
Fats in Butter
Butter contains more than just saturated fat. People are often surprised to learn that about a third of the fat in butter is actually monounsaturated--the same sort of heart-healthy fat that’s in olive oil and avocado. The same or similar is true of most animal foods, by the way. Although we tend to think of meat, eggs, and dairy products as containing mostly or only saturated fat, this is not the case. Up to half of the fat in beef is monounsaturated. Two thirds of the fat in an egg is unsaturated. Ironically, the only foods I can think of that contain virtually all saturated fat are plant based: coconut and palm kernel oil.
Nutrients in Butter
Butter also contains a variety of nutrients. It’s a good source of vitamin A--which about 40% of Americans do not get enough of. It also contains modest amounts of vitamins D and E--although you’ll get more of both of these nutrients from olive oil. But butter also features a few nutrients that are not particularly widespread in the food supply, including CLA, MCTs, vitamin K2, choline, and butyrate.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a fatty acid that is found mostly in red meat and butterfat; Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are found in butter and other full-fat dairy products but also coconut and palm oil. Although you’ll see a lot about the health benefits of CLA and MCTs online, the research to support these claims has been rather underwhelming, so far.
Butter is also one of relatively few dietary sources for vitamin K2, a nutrient that is important for strong bones. Although, if it’s K2 you’re after, there are better sources, such as natto (a fermented soybean preparation common in Japan) and other fermented foods.
Choline is an essential nutrient that has many important functions in the body, including synthesizing neurotransmitters and protecting neurons. The average intake for this nutrient is only about half of what’s considered to be adequate. Although butter does contain small amounts of choline, whole eggs, meat, fish, and cruciferous vegetables are much better sources.
And, finally, butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, especially in the gut. Butyrate is produced on site in the gut by your intestinal bacteria, as I talked about in my recent episode on postbiotics. So, one way to get more butyrate in your gut is to eat more fiber, which promotes the health of those bacteria. Another way is to eat foods that contain butyrate, including butter.
Even though butter isn’t exactly a nutrient powerhouse, it’s clearly not just empty calories, either. But is that enough to justify rebranding butter as a healthy fat?
What Makes a Food Healthy?
Well, whenever anyone asks me whether a particular food can be considered healthy, I respond by saying that no food can really be designated as healthy or unhealthy in a vacuum. It depends on how much you’re eating, what you’re eating it with, and what you might be eating if you weren’t eating that instead.
No food can really be designated as healthy or unhealthy in a vacuum.
I wouldn’t endorse blending a stick of butter into your coffee every morning (although some would). And the fact that my famous pie crust is made with butter doesn’t justify a larger piece! But a pat of butter melted onto a baked sweet potato or drizzled over an ear of fresh corn on the cob? Go for it!
As for how much is too much, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that you should consume about three times as much unsaturated fat as saturated. That sounds about right to me. Although saturated fat may not be as harmful as we once thought, evidence for the benefits of unsaturated fat continues to get stronger.
So, what would that look like in terms of a typical day?
Let’s say I start the day with some overnight oats made with whole milk yogurt and fruit. Most of the fat in the yogurt is saturated. For lunch, I have a big salad topped with a hard boiled egg and half an avocado, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. That’s a little more saturated fat in the egg but mostly monounsaturated fat in the avocado and dressing. That afternoon, I have a handful of almonds for a snack--they contain a bit of saturated fat but are mostly unsaturated.
For dinner, I grill a piece of salmon, saute some spinach in olive oil and garlic, and add a baked acorn squash. Most of the fat in both the salmon and olive oil is unsaturated but both also contain small amounts of saturated fat. Later, I air-pop some popcorn and drizzle it with butter. As I said earlier, about two-thirds of the fat in butter is saturated and the rest is unsaturated. All told, that’s about 60 grams of unsaturated fat, 20 grams of saturated fat, and whole lot of delicious nutrition.
Almost any food can be consumed in quantities or contexts that are unhealthful and butter is no exception. But I think that a healthy diet can absolutely include butter--and be the better for it!